The story so far: North Korea said this week that its flurry of missile launches was a practice or simulation to attack South Korea’s airbases and warplanes and paralyse its command systems. The North Korean military said on November 7 that the barrage of missile tests was in response to the large-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which it described as an “open provocation aimed at intentionally escalating the tension” in the Korean peninsula and “a dangerous war drill”.
While North Korea has engaged in testing missiles regularly over the years, here’s a look at what is different about this year’s record launches, with experts suspecting another North Korean nuclear test to be imminent.
What has happened?
On October 31, the day South Korea and the U.S. began one of their largest joint military exercises, North Korea demanded the two countries halt the exercises, calling them a provocation and military threat that may draw “more powerful follow-up measures” from Pyongyang.
The joint military exercise, called operation “Vigilant Storm”, featured about 240 warplanes that conducted around 1,600 sorties. The drills also featured America’s B-1B Lancer bombers, which the U.S. had last flown over the South in 2017 when Pyongyang carried out its last nuclear test.
Washington and Seoul believe that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is just to resume nuclear testing and have embraced a “deterrence” strategy involving major military drills. Notably, some current and former officials have cautioned that the drills may exacerbate tensions.
On November 2, as the air drills were underway, North Korea issued another warning saying it could no longer “tolerate” such “rashness and provocation”. The same day, Pyongyang fired a total of 23 missiles, the most ever in a day, with one landing close to South Korean shores and prompting a rare warning for Ulleungdo Island’s residents to seek shelter in bunkers. Seoul’s military said it was the first time such a close brush had happened since the peninsula was divided at the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953.
One short-range ballistic missile crossed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between the North and the South. North Korea also fired an artillery barrage into a maritime “buffer zone” set up in 2018 in a bid to reduce tensions between the two countries.
On its part, Seoul said it fired three air-to-ground missiles into the sea towards the north of the two countries’ maritime boundary.
Pyongyang continued its barrage on Thursday firing three more missiles including one that South Korea suspected to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Japan suspected that the ICBM would fly over its territory, prompting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to broadcast alerts telling residents of the country’s three northern areas to go underground or shelter inside firm buildings. Japan later said that the missile disappeared in the skies above the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, adding that there were no overflies.
North Korea then resorted to flying what Seoul said were 180 warplanes over its territory which made Seoul scramble dozens of its own military aircraft. As the U.S. and South Korea decided to extend their joint drills till Saturday and flew American bombers over the South, Pyongyang responded with more missiles.
Since January this year, North Korea has been ramping up its missile tests to a record pace, having fired more than 60 missiles including the first firing of an ICBM since 2017 and flying a missile over Japan in early October.
What is North Korea trying to demonstrate with the missile launches?
North Korea is wary of joint drills between the U.S. and South Korea and believes them to be a rehearsal for invasion and proof of hostile policies. Mason Richey, professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, toldReuters: “North Korea really does not like these large combined air exercises, especially since they employ F-35s (aircraft) that can be used for decapitation strikes against the regime and are very difficult for North Korean air defences to pick up.”
Besides, the exercises also involved the flying of America’s long-range B-1B bombers over the South. A New York Times analysis pointed out that the North is especially sceptical about long-range bombers because U.S. aerial shelling caused significant damage to the North during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Notably, Pyongyang’s record launches this year began even before military exercises between the allies, one also involving Japan. While it says it is responding to the “provocative” drills, some analysts believe that Kim Jong-un must be setting the stage for something bigger— the resumption of nuclear testing after five years.
U.S. and South Korean intelligence have said that Pyongyang has completed technical preparations for a nuclear test, and Seoul had last month that tests might happen in a window between China’s Communist Party Congress and the U.S. midterm elections. While that did not happen, both allies have maintained that the North might resume nuclear testing, which was last done in 2017. Nuclear testing work had been halted under a self-imposed moratorium since 2018.
American analyst Adam Mount pointed out that the recent tests were not the usual response to military exercises, but were “calibrated to escalate tensions”. He added: “If North Korea prefers to conduct a nuclear test in a crisis, it is well on its way to manufacturing one.”
The belief that a nuclear test is imminent was already strengthened in September when the North Korean parliament passed an escalatory law that authorises preemptive nuclear attacks over a variety of loosely defined crisis situations. It authorises the regime to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes if they feel that there is an external threat and to “automatically” strike if their command and control systems were threatened. Reuters quoted Kim Jong-un as saying that the country would never give up nuclear weapons even in the event of 100 years of sanctions from the West and its allies. Pyongyang may also be showcasing its preemptive abilities in response to South Korea’s own preemptive “kill chain” strategy.
Experts also say North Korea is escalating a brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the country as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength. The U.S. and United Nations sanctions banning North Korean exports of iron ore, coal, seafood, and textile have been affecting its economy since 2017.
The U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations noted that increased testing should also be seen against the geopolitical backdrop of the strained relations between the United States, China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow have pledged more “strategic and tactical” cooperation with Pyongyang, andalso stalled U.N. Security Council efforts to put further sanctions on North Korea by vetoing the move this May. Pyongyang, experts said, could also be leveraging stalled denuclearisation talks and international attention being diverted since the beginning of this year towards the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Pyongyang may also have domestic reasons for escalating testing— propaganda value and gathering support for the regime amid economic hardship and the pandemic.
What does North Korea’s arsenal have?
North Korea’s testing this year began with the launch of its new “hypersonic” missiles, which are more manoeuvrable and capable of avoiding interception. Its launches also included long-range cruise missiles, short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and launhes from mobile platforms such as rail, cars, submarines, and airports.
In March, Pyongyang also claimed that it launched its very latest version of an ICBM- the Hwasong-17, which some analysts believe was the older Hwasong-15 after tests for the latest version did not succeed. Nonetheless, the March test was its highest missile flight, with the projectile going more than 6,000 km into space. Researchers also say that the North could be looking to tip its ICBMs with multiple nuclear warheads that could be manoeuvred, meaning decoys could help them trick interceptors.
In October, it flew a missile over Japan in what it described as a test of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, which experts say potentially would be capable of reaching Guam, a major U.S. military hub in the Pacific.
If Pyongyang indeed resumes nuclear testing, it could be looking at fitting its short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with smaller “tactical” warheads that are used in battlefields. Analysts say deploying multiple smaller warheads could indicate a change in how the North plans to use its nukes by deploying more of them at once on multiple targets.
What has happened on the diplomatic front?
North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003 and has conducted six nuclear tests so far since 2006. Diplomatic talks have been starting and halting over the past two decades.
The Six-Party Talks involving South and North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, started in 2003, have since stalled with changing geopolitical dynamics. Former U.S. President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un thrice between 2018 and 2019 but talks broke down and resulted in more sanctions from the West and increased testing by Pyongyang. The Joe Biden administration did make attempts to restart talks, and North Korea has not seemed keen either.
At present, the U.S. and South Korea have adopted their deterrence strategy through joint drills. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a telephone call with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin after last week’s launches, stressing “ironclad” American commitment to the security of its ally.